Andrew Masterson | Sydney Morning Herald | Friday 8th May 2015
Shep Huntley was a young drama graduate when he first encountered the Jim Rose Circus in 1999. He was at once impressed and disturbed by the Seattle sideshow performer whose very loud, very confronting, nouveau freak show toured the world in the 1990s.
“I was there with a couple of other performers, and when we saw it we thought, hey, we can do this sort of material – but with less grunge,” Huntley recalls. “We wanted to do material that wasn’t so grotesque, happier and more uplifting.”
Fifteen years later, after a career performing his own brand of alt-circus around the world, Huntley’s dream of a family friendly freak-fest is about to be realised. The World Sideshow Festival, featuring 14 acts, begins on May 21 and has been inked in for the next three years in Ballarat.
“I love Ballarat,” said Mr Huntley, who attended the city’s Federation University. “It’s a beautiful, gothic city. It’s got great gargoyles. The place evokes women in furs and men with whisky – and that’s exactly the sort of atmosphere I want for this festival.”
Hyperbole being an inherent part of circus promotion, it shouldn’t surprise that the World Sideshow Festival features only one act from overseas. Eric Sprague is better known as The Lizardman, so named for his green tattooed scales, split tongue and his propensity – admittedly not shared by any reptiles – for swallowing swords and lifting heavy weights from his body piercings.
The Lizardman was a member of the Jim Rose troupe – the only nexus between two very different shows.
The Australian contingent in World’s Sideshow Festival is very strong indeed. One of the featured acts is ex-Melburnian Aerial Manx, who performs around the world with his trademark combination of simultaneous acrobatics and sword-swallowing. Manx holds a number of Guinness world records, notably as the only bloke on the planet who can perform 20 backflips in under a minute while having a large sword shoved down his gullet.
Also on the bill is tattooed Hobart contortionist Samora Squid, who has gained a reputation for twisting himself into impossible positions, while squeezing through a tennis racquet, singing, and driving five-inch nails up his nostrils.
Then there’s circus strongman The Great Gordo Gamsby, unicycle daredevil the Space Cowboy, burlesque aerialist Elle Diablo and many more.
One participant, hoola-hoop specialist Lilikoi Kaos, is on leave from her regular gig with Circus Oz. It’s one of the main reasons why the World Sideshow Festival is on during autumn.
“Circus is a summer phenomenon,” explains Huntley. “For many performers, May is a bit of a nothing month. The Australian season has come to an end and the European season hasn’t started yet. It means more people are available.”
Which explains the timing, if not necessarily the location. Ballarat certainly has its fair share of groovy festivals and venues, but alt-circus seems a more natural fit for, say, Collingwood or St Kilda.
The reason for the goldfields venue turns out to have a lot to do with Huntley’s alma mater. Federation University has come on board as a co-producer and the festival has been incorporated into its theatre and live production courses.
It’s a canny move. Students get some valuable experience in real-world sound and lighting, Huntley gets to cut his costs, and Ballarat gets to add another alt-culture event to its existing roster of rockabilly, photographic and craft beer shindigs.
“The university and I have both committed to stage the festival for three years initially,” says Huntley. “I think it will take that long for it to become fully developed and embedded. After that I’d love to add extra locations around the world. I’ve already been approached by the University of California, Los Angeles, because they have a production course similar to the one at Federation.”
Just like the grunge music that provided its soundtrack, the bizarre appeal of the Jim Rose Circus leached from popularity in the early 2000s. Rose himself, rebel no more, has been a consultant to Microsoft and a motivational speaker profiled by the Wall Street Journal. In its place came the no less spectacular, but much more elegant circus interpretation epitomised by Cirque du Soleil.
It was not a culture shift entirely welcomed by Huntley. He regrets the “pastel homogenisation” of the company, noting that characters, rather than individual performers, get the billing. He prefers the approach of Circus Oz, which designs its shows around the stage presence and skills of the cast members.
“I love Circus Oz,” he says. “When they started 30 years ago they were considered as a fringe company and now they are right in the mainstream. I think the World Sideshow Festival is where they were three decades back. We’re just starting.”
The World Sideshow Festival runs May 21-23 at Ballaarat Mechanics Institute, 117 Sturt St, Ballarat. worldsideshowfestival.com
IMAGE CREDIT: Burlesque aerialist Elle Diablo and Eric Sprague, better known as The Lizardman, photographer unknown, images via Sydney Morning Herald website.